James Felak on Picking Pontiffs and Pope Francis I
Date: March 25th, 2013

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Unless you’ve taken up the hermit lifestyle, you probably have heard about the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the selection of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the Catholic Church’s new pontiff.  The help us understand what the Catholic papacy is all about, and how the Church transitions from one leader to the next, we call upon James Felak, professor of history at the University of Washington – a frequent and popular guest on our show.  Prof. Felak begins the discussion with an overview of what role the pope plays in the Catholic Church, including his responsibilities in writing encyclicals and serving as the Court of Final Instance.  We examine the pontiff’s role in relation to a presidency or corporate executive, two of the more pervasive analogies in the popular media, and James explains why those models are not an accurate description of the pope’s duties.  This becomes an important insight as we discuss whether or not a new pontiff can take the Church in a radically different direction, as many pundits have been speculating in recent weeks.  James likens the Church to an elephant that can plod along with force in a single direction, but has trouble making rapid turns.  The vast size and bureaucratic continuity of the Church makes it difficult for any single pontiff to dramatically alter the institution.  We also review the relationship between the Holy See and the various bishops and national bishops’ conferences around the world.  Attention then turns to the process of papal transition and we examine closely the decision of Benedict XVI to resign, the Conclave of Cardinals, and who finally emerged on the balcony shortly after the white smoke appeared.  Prof. Felak brings some interesting insights into the last pope’s resignation based upon Benedict’s scholarship on norms and meta-norms.  The health of Benedict XVI becomes a topic for discussion and James provides some interesting observations on the role of suffering in the Church and how this related to John Paul II.  Only on Research on Religion can you hear such fascinating and deep insights!  We move then to the selection process, looking at both the politics leading up to the Conclave as well as speculating about what went on behind closed doors.  Tony asks James whether the short notice provided by Benedict was a strategic move to limit politicking among the Cardinals.  After all, he stepped down only three weeks after his announcement during on the the busiest months of the Catholic calendar (e.g., Lent and Palm Sunday), meaning that the Cardinals had to hustle out to Rome, conduct their business, and (hopefully) choose a new pontiff by Easter.  Tony also peppers Prof. Felak with additional questions about whether Benedict will be setting a new precedent among popes and how much outside influence from different Catholic factions and secular governments plays a role in the election process.  Our discussion also explores who the Cardinals are, how they are selected, and what roles they play in the Church.  Our conversation also covers the issues of secrecy surrounding the Conclave, whether there has been any leaks, who gets on the first ballot, how candidates get eliminated during the voting process, and the duration of the event.  James notes that Tony tends to be interested in these strategic details, but then Tony reminds him that he is a political economist after all!  Finally, James offers up his reflections on the selection of Bergoglio with a fascinating observation that nobody else in the media has pointed out, and one that might be critical for the direction of the Church.  To find out what that observation is, you will have to listen.  We also talk about how big of a deal it is that Francis I is from Argentina and that he is a Jesuit, as well as his theological and ideological leanings.  And what about that name Francis?  We talk why that name was chosen, why popes take certain names, and what name James would have taken had he been picked for pope.  We finish with Tony asking James why non-Catholics should care about who is chosen as pope, prompting a very interesting response about the role of ecumenism.  Recorded: March 18, 2013.


Prof. James Felak’s biography at the University of Washington.

After Hitler, Before Stalin: Catholics, Communists, and Democrats in Slovakia, 1945-1948, by James Felak.

James Martin, S.J.’s writings at America magazine (referenced in interview).

Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclicals at the Vatican archives and books at Amazon.com (referenced in interview).


Jeremy Lott on the Media’s Pope-O-Rama.

John M. Sweeney on the Pope Who Quit.

James Felak on Vatican Council II.

James Felak on Pope John Paul II and Communism.

James Felak on Pope Pius XII, The Wartime Pontiff.

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